Thursday, November 28, 2013

Flight Simulator: The Star Trek Text Video Game

The Star Trek Text Video Game
In one of my other lives I moonlight as a video game journalist. Now, when I say that I mean I write largely gonzo stream-of-consciousness mytho-symbolic reactions to video games from twenty-seven years ago, which is admittedly what you'd probably expect from me. The point being video games have been an incredibly important part of my life for a very long time. So much so that I'm far more comfortable associating with and relating to video games then I am to pretty much any other kind of creative expression with the exception of music, and this influences the approach I take to media studies and just media consumption in general. It's also why I find it...not so much disquieting as ironically curious that my biggest project to date is a sprawling overview of a franchise most known for its film and television work. On the whole, I don't work well with scripted drama. I feel I've never been able to truly appreciate it the way most people do and that I keep coming at it from weird angles. In that sense my long relationship with Star Trek and the scant few other non-game or -music works I hold dear to me is almost a fluke.

But Star Trek itself has a very important relationship with video games that goes back almost as long as video games do. The idea of a licensed video game is an interesting one: For this kind of game to be successful it has to be beholden to both the standards of good game design and fealty to its source material. It's a very thin line to walk and too far in either direction all but guarantees failure, if not commercially or critically definitely aesthetically. My own history with Star Trek is also quite bound up with my history with video games: Some of the first games I ever played were Star Trek ones, and it's been a minor life goal of mine to find that one elusive Star Trek game that both works as a game and fits with my conception of what Star Trek should be like (and given the way so many licensed games turn out and the fact not even most televised Star Trek holds to what I think Star Trek should be like, you can probably tell what a fruitless endeavour this is). But even so, there have been a number of Star Trek video games that have proved to be both historically and personally significant, and this series looks at some of them.

And so it happens that one of the earliest computer games distributed as part of a pack of games written in BASIC for early home computers happened to be based on the original Star Trek. What became The Star Trek Text Video Game was born out of an early jam session held by programmer Mike Mayfield and some of his high school friends in 1971, and was eventually ported to the HP-2000C when Hewlett-Packard asked Maynard for a version of it. David H Ahl, who worked with DEC, then found this version and included it in his list of 101 BASIC Games. Bob Leedom then cleaned the game up, adding a new user interface and simplifying the commands for better ease of use. Ahl contacted Leedom and eventually they released this version of the game jointly as Super Star Trek in 1974 as part of the book Creative Computing. Following a reprint in 1978 just as personal computers were becoming more ubiquitous, Super Star Trek became the first computer game to sell over a million copies, and got a thumbs-up from Dave Gerrold himself.

The game itself has the player, in control of the Enterprise, hunting down enemy Klingon warships. The game world is a galaxy divided up into quadrants on an eight by eight grid, and each quadrant is a further eight by eight grid of sectors.. From there, the game is simply about chasing down the different Klingon ships with short and long range sensors, engaging them in combat with phasers and photon torpedoes and occasionally refueling at Federation starbases. But there's a surprising amount of flexibility and control over different variables for a game this old: You have to manage not just the amount of fuel the Enterprise has, but the level of power in your shields and the range of weapons (turning and aiming are vital, and considering it's all done via coordinates this becomes pretty tiresome pretty quickly). Using the long range sensors, it's also possible scope out any remaining targets or starbases and navigate there using warp drive, which gives the game a genuine sense of scale. This is naturally very befitting of a Star Trek game set in an entire galaxy, but it's still surprising considering the first version came out in 1971: This was definitely an ambitious title for its time.

That said, The Star Trek Text Video Game is, as you might expect, extremely simplistic. Everything is not only controlled through text commands, it's also depicted entirely though text as well. There's no actual “gameplay” to speak of: It's more inputting a series of commands and responding to what the game prints out, which is an experience suspiciously akin to productivity on a command line interface. And here's where we start to enter into the territory of having to define what is and what isn't a video game: As of this writing, it's a somewhat contentious issue in circles frequented by people who prefer to spend their time philosophizing about the nature of the medium and how to write about video games instead of playing them (which is, I'll admit, a situation I'm not altogether unfamiliar with myself). The big debate tends to centre around whether things like the output of studios like Quantic Dream or Twine stories ought to be considered video games, or if they're better classified as something else. My own opinion on the matter in brief is “not in the slightest” and “almost, but not quite” respectively, and this is primary due to how I personally conceive of what a video game looks like.

See to me a game has to at the very least be comparable in some way with something like Asteroids. There has to be some baseline level of graphics and real-time action. If a work isn't meeting those minimum standards, I tend to be reluctant to call it a proper video game. The Star Trek Text Video Game is a really borderline case here, and I don't think I'm being too unfair in my judgment: SpaceWar came out three years prior to it, and Tennis for Two even before that, and both of those are unquestionably recognisable as what we'd now call a video game. Compared to those altogether more dynamic titles, The Star Trek Text Video Game comes across looking a bit behind the times even for 1971. That's not to denigrate or belittle it, as it's still very obviously an impressive achievement, it's just an indication that it might be a slightly different breed of animal than the sort of thing I tend to be more accustomed to. What I think it might actually get at is a slight schism between what we call “video games” and what might actually be better described as “computer games”

The Star Trek Text Video Game is an exercise in playing around with what personal computers can do. The fact it was eventually released as part of a bundle entitled Creative Computing is sort of telling: It's more a technology experiment for computer hobbyists to muck around with alone in their bedrooms, garages, workshops whereas video games always seemed to be designed as accessible social experiences from the beginning. This also highlights, for the perhaps the first time (at least the first time since “Arena”) the segment of Star Trek fandom that will ultimately become the most vocal and dominant. The only people who would be playing The Star Trek Text Video Game, at least at first, were people who already had access to computers. So, once again, we're looking at big universities specializing in subsidized technoscience research. Even afterwards you had to first own a PC yourself, and they didn't exactly come cheap. By definition these people are going to be somewhat affluent and privileged technologically-minded individuals, which is, if we think back to the “Save Star Trek!” business, precisely the sort of audience NBC wanted to court with Star Trek. Even though computer programming was not the male-dominated industry in the 1970s it is today, it's still tough to imagine the kind of person who would be writing Kirk/Spock fanfiction sitting down and loading this thing up in BASIC.

Which is probably at least part of the reason Paramount gave Ahl the go-ahead to use the name “Star Trek” and why Dave Gerrold ended up advertising the game. Even then Paramount knew who their primary demographic was supposed to be and made overtures to court it. That said though, and in spite of all the officially licensed Star Trek games to come, The Star Trek Text Video Game is still largely a game that couldn't be made in a lot of the subsequent eras of Star Trek history. Especially when the brand became a massive cash cow in the 1990s, the idea of a purely fan made video game being initially distributed through word-of-mouth would have had sent Paramount's lawsuit instincts into overdrive (and indeed when a spiritual successor to this game based on Star Trek: The Next Generation emerged in 1994, Paramount clamped down on that pretty quickly). But of course by that point both the personal computer and video game industries were very different than they were in 1971.

But as for The Star Trek Text Video Game itself, no matter what else we can say about the climate it was coming into, it's clear it was an important part of electronics history. So much so it was eventually remade for the Atari 2600 as another classic, Star Raiders, which is essentially the same game except without the Star Trek license, but with actual graphics and proper real-time action. But the original game is still worth a look for its historical significance if for nothing else: If you don't mind its archaic gameplay, you can play a JavaScript recreation of the Super Star Trek version here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sensor Scan Bonus: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

This is the second part of my reading of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! in the context of Star Trek and the larger pop culture landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. You may wish to check out part one (covering the period of the show when it was actually known as Mysteries Five) first if you haven't done so already, or even if you have just for a bit of a refresher. This part goes into more detail about the actual show and what I think the main characters represent. And, like the previous part, it's a revised, remixed, expanded and otherwise tweaked version of a piece I wrote a year ago on one of my other blogs.

I'm not going to pull what Gene Roddenberry did with “Assignment: Earth” and pretend this isn't a backdoor pilot for another project I'd really like to write someday. This is manifestly why it's an overstuffed two-parter: I'm trying to condense my entire reading and thesis into one blog post when covering Scooby-Doo could well be a project of comparable size and scope to Vaka Rangi. However, the original
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is still one of the biggest cultural signifiers of 1969, so I've really no choice but to put this here. My apologies in advance. That being said, if you're at all interested in hearing me talk more about Scooby-Doo (as if for some reason this ridiculous spiel wasn't enough for you) or just want to discuss it further, please do let me know in the comments or anywhere else you're able to get ahold of me. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

If there's another pop culture franchise that's meant as much to me and about which I have as many complex, conflicting emotions as Star Trek, I'm not at all ashamed to admit it has to be Scooby-Doo.

You find yourself on a dirt path. It's an avenue lined with leafless trees on either side. The Moon is full, and the moonlight shining through the trees gives the gnarled landscape a transfixing, grotesque otherworldly beauty. In the distance there's an old Victorian estate. Through the evening dusk, you can just make out that it seems completely abandoned, all save for one window that remains eerily lit. There's a crack of thunder, and a flock of bats comes flying at you. There's an almost legibly thick haze in the air, blurring the boundaries between night and day, between our world and the others. How far across the expanse does the dream extend? How long have you been here? Difficult to say. All you know is that you need to get to your next gig and your dog's hungry in the backseat.

When last we left Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, we dubbed it the reanimated shell of a dead show we didn't get to see forever haunted by the potential its predecessor hinted at. While in many ways this remains true, one of the most fascinating things about Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is not so much what it *lost* from Mysteries Five, but how much it actually managed to *retain*. Because Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is one of the most brilliantly subversive and inspirational television programmes ever made, hardly anybody recognises it as such, and it manages this all through imagery and symbolism alone.

Which is quite fitting for a show so consciously invested in reviving German Expressionism for 1960s children's television. Still the boldest and most intriguing decision Joe Ruby and Ken Spears made when given the dictum to create a modern, hip supernatural-themed mystery show for kids was to deliberately invoke the films of Weimar cinema. It would have been very easy, and indeed expected, to just do a tongue-in-cheek monster romp full of Lon Cheney, Jr. Werewolves, Boris Karloff Frankenstein monsters and Bela Lugosi Draculas, paying lip-service to the ubiquity of Universal Horror (it's telling that when Scooby-Doo does eventually do this, it does it with far more style, cleverness and layered meaning than really ought to be expected of it). This is just what people who pastiche horror films do: Pick one of the above and do a fun runaround full of family-friendly scares. This is also explicitly not what Joe Ruby and Ken Spears do, and that choice has tremendous ramifications.

If there's any remaining doubt in your minds that Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is nothing short of unfiltered Expressionism, think back for a moment to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: That film is defined by its use of distorted perspective, unnatural-looking light and colour and painted shadows to emphasize the unearthly, dreamlike setting. Furthermore Caligari, just like many Expressionist works, showcased a warped and contorted version of an otherwise relatively modern and urban environment, sometimes contrasted with a similarly ethereal pastoral setting. Many prints of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I've seen give the film an eery blueish tint that I think really accentuates it. Well, The very first shot in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! opens on a deserted rural highway that looks painted onto the background (I mean, even more so than one would expect to see in a cartoon) surrounded by disquietingly bent leafless trees with the moonlight streaming through them.

Furthermore, the antagonist of the second episode, “A Clue for Scooby-Doo”, is disguised as a ghostly diver: A haunted, vacuous shell of an otherwise recognisable everyday object (in this case a diving suit) glowing an unsettling greenish-yellow. Likewise, the Phantom Shadow from “A Night of Fright is No Delight” and Ghost of Hyde from “Nowhere to Hyde” are bathed in an unearthly blue-green aura. This even extends to real people, like the occult sculptor in “Don't Fool with a Phantom”. But one of my very favourite moments comes from the opening of episode “The Backstage Rage”, where Shaggy and Scooby-Doo are walking through a suburb: The show makes that neighbourhood look as vast and unreal as anything in “serious” horror. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! takes an environment any of its viewers would be familiar with (not to mention its own creators too: The show is obviously set in Southern California) and transforms it into something that feels alien and inhospitable, a trick you might recognise as something only the most potent of horror movies can pull off. It's a style utterly unique to this show and that I've somewhat cheekily dubbed “California Gothic”.

The undiluted Expressionism of the show's art style is just the half of it, of course: In a juxtaposition worthy of Weimar Berlin itself, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! stars four cheerfully groovy youths and a goofy dog who travel around together with no immediately clear motivation beyond trying to have a good time and to enjoy being young, seemingly oblivious to the shambling disarray and general disorder that apparently surrounds them. Except they're not. In fact, the real genius at work here is how Ruby and Spears quietly made the cast of their show some of the most blatantly radical and progressive characters to ever appear on US television, and it's in truth their revolutionary interaction with the world around them that's the entire point of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. Perhaps we should finally meet them, then.

One thing should be made perfectly clear from the outset: The gang are not Hippies. They are in no way, shape or form designed to resemble Hippies, nor does anything about their appearance, mannerisms or general look invoke the Hippie subculture of the late-1960s United States at all. For a supposedly-timely shout-out to the youth this might at first seem puzzling, though I have a theory as to why this may be the case I'll outline later. The bottom line for the moment is that no-one in the core five is meant to represent Hippie culture: In fact, really the only thing in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that remotely calls to mind the Hippies or psychedelic street performance is the Mystery Machine itself, with its flower-power paint job.

Actually, speaking of the Mystery Machine, let's talk about that first. We know from looking at production documents that Mysteries Five would have seen the gang as a five-piece musical band who had a knack for stumbling into mysteries on tour, hence their name. This also explains the Mystery Machine-It was obviously supposed to be the band's tour bus. Without the band motif though it now looks weird and out of place. Why are four random kids driving around in a van called the Mystery Machine? The gang are clearly not a group of private investigators in this show (all the evidence for that reading comes from subsequent series), they're just ordinary youths. So what's with the van? Well, even though its initial purpose was lost with Mysteries Five, it serves an important new role in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: It's the gang's home. While it's never explicitly stated in any of the shows that the gang are nomads (there are even a few episodes far in the future that try to give the gang actual houses, with mixed results in my view), it's pretty strongly implied, especially later on. This was probably the most important thing about this franchise to me as a kid: The idea of travelling around the world with three close friends, a dog and nothing more than what we could fit into our modified van is pretty much my definition of utopia. To this day my dream is to live in either a boat or a van, and I credit Scooby-Doo with being my primary inspiration.

But that's the van-What about the actual gang? If they're not Hippies, than who are they? Comics and animation veteran Mark Evanier is on record saying the gang was based on the main cast of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with Fred as Dobie, Daphne as Thalia, Velma as Zelda and Shaggy as Maynard. This would of course fit with the information we have from Ruby's and Spears' earliest brainstorming sessions with Fred Silverman. However, and with all due respect to Mark Evanier, who knows more about Hollywood and the cartoon business than I could ever hope to and who actually wrote for the show and ran its comic adaptation for a time, if this was the intention than, the way I see it Ruby and Spears pretty decisively missed the boat: The gang no more resemble the teens-by-committee of Dobie Gillis than they do the Hippies. No, the gang are something far different and far more interesting than either of those.

Let's take them one at a time, starting with our new star. Scooby-Doo (and this is his name, not Scoobert of the House of Doo or whatever, at least right now), as we know, was from the beginning written as a large, silly, cowardly Great Dane. However, as easily spooked as he is, the core of his character is that he'll always summon up the courage to do the right thing and help save the day in the end. He was, as it happens, modeled off of Bob Hope's various comedy performances in the “Road To...” films in which he starred alongside Bing Crosby. So Bob Hope then: Not other cartoon dogs or a calculated metaphor for drug culture or whatever, Bob Hope. Not exactly radical youth movement material there, but let's remember he was supposed to be a comedy relief supporting character and what we see now is what happens whenever comedy relief supporting characters are suddenly thrust into the spotlight and given the responsibility of carrying the whole show. Not much good, in other words.

Actually, even though he's supposed to be based on Bob Hope, in practice, Scooby-Doo's narrative role seems to be more comparable to Lou Costello's in the Abbott and Costello movies: As of this writing I'd recently rewatched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and I was struck by how much Costello's character reminded me of Scooby-Doo. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the show would have handled its comedy a lot better and would have just been more effective overall if it had emphasized this more prominently. This is the biggest problem with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and the thing that regularly gets in the way of people taking it as seriously as I think it deserves to be taken: The comedy all too often feels every bit as shoehorned in and as forced as it actually was. Although Scooby-Doo was always meant to be funny, he was obviously only originally supposed to be a minor background character and his shtick has a tendency to wear very thin. Furthermore, the show's panicky need to shove humour at us all the time to appease its moral watchdogs has more destructive effects on the other characters. But Scooby's charming enough and because much of his initial characterization carries through he works (for now at any rate), so let's move on.

Perhaps more interesting is Scooby-Doo's evergreen companion and now second half of a shared double act, Shaggy. Shaggy is the first character who shows off the extent of the damage the show's last-minute tonal shift did. More than any other character, Shaggy is the one who is the most Flanderized and stereotyped over the course of the franchise as every single showrunner tries to take one minor quirk (the fact he has a big appetite and has a tendency to be jumpy) and squeeze far, far more material out of it than is physically possible. Really, by the second season it was all over for Shaggy until Tom Ruegger came along in 1983 and gave him some much-needed reconstruction. But, If we look at Shaggy in the earliest episodes of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! we might be surprised to find that his defining character trait is not, as we perhaps might expect, cowardice, but rather a world-weary and tired cynicism and a dry, jaded sense of humour. In fact, he's often the one who is tasked, to his exasperation, with coaxing the nerve-wracked Scooby into action.

What this means is that what Shaggy is, as can best be determined by the larger social climate in which Ruby and Spears could reasonably be expected to have been working, is a Beat. Crucially however, Shaggy is not a “beatnik”, that hegemonic parody designed to marginalize and belittle Beats who is exemplified by Maynard G. Krebbs; Shaggy is closer to the actual spirit and ethos of the Beat Generation than really anything seen on US television before, and arguably since. Shaggy's role in the show is to appeal to caution and try to prevent his friends from making any rash decisions. He's proven wrong as often as he's proven right of course, though this doesn't take away from what he seems to be doing. Furthermore, he freely goes along with whatever the rest of the gang comes up with and is just as useful and willing part of the team as anyone else.

This makes sense, as the Beats were arguably the oldest of the youth movements that came to define the 1960s counterculture landscape, and much of their guiding ethos is reflected in the way Shaggy behaves: “Beat” is literally a reference to a feeling of being “beaten down” by society. In fact, Shaggy isn't just a Beat, he sometimes feels like a specific stand-in for someone like Jack Kerouac: The older, more weathered person who can speak from a position of age and experience. Another thing that makes Shaggy such a strong character is that his disheveled appearance is just universal enough he can be co-opted and championed as an icon of any number of subcultures that have cropped up over the years in the wake of the Beat Generation. Just compare him with, for example, the likes of John Carmack or Thurston Moore.

However, the character with hands-down the most blatant broadness of appeal has to be Shaggy's one-time sister Velma. Unlike Shaggy, Velma doesn't seem to represent any specific youth movement or philosophy, instead going for generically and cheerfully bookish (though it is worth mentioning she wears a miniskirt, which ought to, in 1969, make her allegiances clear). Her looks, unorthodox for a woman on US television, paired with her unabashed nerdiness and cool competence has rightly made her a hero for generations of feminists and other academics, and that alone makes her an iconic character. In Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Velma is often cast as the third wheel to Shaggy's and Scooby-Doo's buddy comedy act, to her detriment. At the very least this isn't done in the manner of the trite and sexist disparaging (and arguably repressed Freudian) female straight man: More often than not she gets wound up in the shenanigans as often as her friends do and contributes her fair share to them as well (cheap nearsightedness gags are her specialty, naturally, as are gratuitous technobabble and comedic miscalculations). This is no mistake-Ruby, Spears and Silverman felt Shaggy, Scooby and Velma were the most inherently funny characters in the cast and took every opportunity to put the spotlight on them as often as possible.

The biggest myth surrounding Velma is that she's the only really productive member of the cast, finding all the clues, putting them together and solving the mystery. This does in fact become the case in later incarnations (largely because Hanna-Barbera stopped caring after the original show), but it's important to stress that in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! every character has a dedicated role to play: If Scooby is the comic relief and Shaggy is the voice of reason, Velma is the analyst. She makes observations and inferences and helps to formulate deductions. She's also the primary expositor, using her wealth of book smarts to help the gang in situations involving science and engineering. She's not, it should be stressed, chief investigator, at least not yet: She doesn't tend to find clues as much as she does put the pieces together once she has them. She's more James Bond's Q than The Avengers' Emma Peel, if you will. That role falls to someone else.

Then there's Daphne. The character everyone says is objectively useless; a piece of late-1960s eye candy with no sense of self preservation or spatial awareness who exists solely to hang off of Fred's arm, fret about her clothes and hair and get stupidly kidnapped every episode to drag the plot out a little longer. Or, as I like to say, a triumph of both feminism and youth utopianism and quite possibly the best idea Scooby-Doo ever had. First of all, Daphne's job is manifestly not to get kidnapped to give the gang something to rescue at the halfway mark of every episode: In the original series she doesn't get abducted any more frequently than Shaggy or Fred (her nickname “Danger-Prone Daphne” comes from the fact she's sometimes a bit clumsy, though please do note it's only Fred, and on rare occasions Velma, who refers to her by this name). What Daphne actually does is find the clues. All of them. She seems to be able to notice hidden subtleties the other characters overlook all the time and frequently asks the questions that cause the others to re-think a deduction or leads them to suddenly realise something they hadn't before.

Even aside from that, Daphne is very probably the least understood character in Scooby-Doo, and this is a real shame, because she is also possibly one of the greatest. Part of this might be due to the passage of time and countless reboots distancing us from the cultural context into which she was originally introduced, so parsing out exactly who and what Daphne is requires us, even more than in the case of her friends, to start from critical square one, ignore the 40+ years of cultural conditioning that weigh down the franchise and flex our media studies skills a bit. But the groovy miniskirt with the scandalously short hemline, fabulous riding scarf and flip hairstyle tell it all: Daphne is a Mod.

In a famous quote that's still the best descriptor of the movement I've yet seen, Peter Meaden, the manager of legendary Mod rockers The Who, described the lifestyle as “clean living under difficult circumstances”. The origins of the first Mods is the subject of a lot of academic disagreement, but the consensus seems to be that they were a group of working class dandies who emerged out of the 1950s Beat Generation and were inspired by the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Modern jazz and soul music and a fascination with consumerist culture as a deliberate act of rebellion against British traditionalism and the old-fashioned, classist social structure that went along with it. Fashion and style were, in and of themselves, extremely important elements of the scene, though not in the stereotypical sense of an unscrupulous one percenter whittling vast fortunes away on trivialities. Because they were working class, the Mods were very conscientious about which products to purchase and show off and the way in which they would be displayed. The goal was to take symbols of consumerist culture and reappropriate them in unique, “Mod” ways as a kind of Pop Art (not Soda) statement.

(Also note that Daphne's original voice actor was the US-Icelandic Indira Stefianna Christopherson, i.e. the only person not immediately recognisable as Southern Californian. The birthplace of the Mod movement was the UK.)

So no, Daphne is not prissy heiress who can afford to live in luxury because of her amazingly wealthy family. She's a working class dandy performance artist. If you need further evidence, consider the fact her signature colour is purple: Traditionally, purple was seen as an exclusive symbol of the aristocracy because it's an extremely rare colour in nature and the dye could only be derived by harvesting thousands upon thousands of mollusks whose shells contained the necessary pigment. That changed in the Victorian age with the advent of artificial dyes which made purple a colour available to everybody. So, by wearing purple, Daphne is using her wardrobe to make a public statement about how she reappropriates symbols and tools of the ruling class for her own radical purposes and as a symbol of herself and her personal ideals, which is pure Mod. And really, this reading does seem to make more sense: After all, why would a stupidly wealthy young woman obsessed with status bomb around in a beat-up Volkswagen van with a grungy Beat, a bookish nerd, a dog and a guy obsessed with poking his nose into other people's business?

But this also means Daphne is the character most hurt by the transition from Mysteries Five to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: As the Mod, she is very clearly meant to have some kind of relationship with Shaggy, the Beat, because her subculture is an evolution of his. She's the more hopeful, optimistic yin to his cynical and jaded yang. However, because Daphne wasn't considered to be as funny as Shaggy and Velma, she was pushed offscreen at every opportunity so the clown troupe leads could be in the spotlight as much as possible and as a result she's barely in the show (this, by the way, not an implication that she's sleeping with Fred, is the reason the gang has an irrationally programmatic instinct to split up all the time). Just as with Shaggy, Daphne's role doesn't truly become clear until the two of them get the entire show to themselves in the mid-1980s under Tom Ruegger. However, even in the original series if you notice, whenever the gang is just making casual conversation, it's usually Shaggy and Daphne talking to each other.

Which brings me to Fred who is, I'll be honest, difficult to read. He's the character who poses the greatest challenge to my redemptive interpretation of the series, but let's see what I can do with him anyway. For one it would seem like Fred was meant to be the protagonist before he was usurped by Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, which makes sense if we take Mark Evanier's word and posit he was based on Dobie Gillis. It's just too easy to claim this when looking at his design: youth subculture? Well, I suppose we could say he looks vaguely Mod; He's certainly got the ascot for it and the colours are right, but I'm pretty sure we're meant to read that top as a white sweater over a polo shirt and those look suspiciously like blue jeans to me. Not quite a slick Italian suit, then. No, what Fred looks the most like is a generically clean all-American prep school jock or university Ivy Leaguer which, annoyingly, he'd most likely have to be if he was created as the protagonist of a series meant, at least in part, to appease fanatical moral guardians.

However, this reading runs into issues once we realise that Mysteries Five always seemed like it was intended as an ensemble show with no one main character, focusing instead on the dynamic interaction of the gang as a whole. There's certainly enough of that in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that it seems like it renders this take on Fred's role too problematic to hold. So what does Fred do in the show as broadcast? Mostly he just makes decisions and issues orders when it comes time to inevitably split the gang up. He's usually credited as the one who designs the traps used to catch the villain, but Velma has just as much input and on many occasions its implied the entire gang works together on them. He exposits the plot, but not as much as Velma, he finds clues, but not as many as Daphne and he works with Scooby and comments on the situation, but not as well or as frequently as Shaggy. Really, he seems just like a balanced, well-rounded member of the team with no real specialty, symbolism or particular purpose. Puzzlingly, still just like a generic leader would be.

This may very well be the underlying point of Fred though, that he plays the role of leader even when it's not required. After all, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! absolutely needed to not arouse the ire of the media watchdogs again, so what better way to do that than have a token character designed to look as white bread as they come to contrast with the manic antics of our loveable clown troupe leads? Looking more carefully however, and it could be assured media watchdogs absolutely would not, it becomes clear Fred's leadership is redundant, but he doesn't really care because he's only playing the role halfheartedly. After all, he's hanging around with three overt symbols of 1960s subculture, so he must not mind them all that much. What Fred does then is, through his superficial displays of blandness, textually and metatextually allow his friends to be as wild, crazy and countercultural as they can get (it's telling when Fred eventually gets his one major character revision he is overtly assigned a subculture: Conspiracy theorists).

The way Fred seems to play with his narrative role segues nicely into the other major thing Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is known for: A formulaic style of storytelling and characterization that is not just a major aspect of the way it tells stories but fundamentally imbued into the very core of how the show works and what it does. Among the many things that could be said about this approach, included among these the minor fact Scooby-Doo seems to have introduced Glam-style characterization several years ahead of the curve, the really interesting thing from my perspective is what ramifications this holds for the show's basic themes and values. For one thing, Fred, Velma, Daphne and Shaggy are not characters in the sense we now understand them. As I've argued, they're really representatives of specific youth movements and crucially, youth movements from the late-1950s to mid-1960s: Several years before the show's actual airdate. They're caricatured for television animation, of course, but it's very clear who these characters are meant to be. What we have is, far from the original brief of a show overtly about everyday teen issues against the backdrop of a detective story or, for that matter, a modern character-driven drama, a show about programmatic characters who represent ideals tossed into a nightmare-scape of German Expressionism.

Recall the fact this show was being worked on in 1968, the year that marked the final collapse of youth counterculture in the United States. And then think back on which youth movements in particular the individual members of the gang represent: Beat, Geek, Mod and, arguably, Glam. Two of these date from long before the rise of the Hippies and Yippies, let alone their collapse and public shunning, one is timeless and the other hasn't even really coalesced into a visible movement as of this point. Although part of this is most likely due to the creators' need to distance their hip, young modern sleuths from the antiwar activists who had just been jackbooted by the Chicago police force for the benefit of the moral guardians, there's another side to this. The gang not only embody youth movements, they overtly hearken back to a time when youth movements were more accepted. The wisdom behind this choice becomes apparent when factoring in the other great programmatic aspect of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: “And I would have gotten away with too, it if it wasn't for those Meddling Kids”.

People like Richard Dawkins tend to love pointing out how Scooby-Doo is essentially a show for arch-rationalists: The ghosts and monsters always turn out to be criminals in disguise, ergo the show is teaching us that the supernatural is all make-believe and mass hallucinations. I would humbly suggest Dawkins and his ilk are completely wrong in this assertion. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! I argue, not only has nothing to do with arch-rationalism or the supernatural, in point of fact the supernatural exists within the series to such an extent it's taken for granted. Later series canonize this by doing stories overtly about a physical supernatural world, but this is really a strong undercurrent that dates back to the show's origin. It's the favourite tool of the New Atheists themselves, Occam's Razor: How many paranormal-themed mysteries have the gang solved in their time? How many turn out to be a dude in a rubber mask in the midst of a land-grab job? How often are they surprised by this revelation?

The answer is always. Every single time the gang, and not just Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, treat the situation as incredibly grave and do nothing that would suggest they think something suspicious or earthly is going on until the clues start piling up. They remain convinced, or at least very open to the possibility of a paranormal explanation up 'till the very end, and are usually frightened to the point of despair as a result. If the gang were truly arch-rationalist skeptics why wouldn’t they go into every case with the presupposition that it's going to be a guy in disguise from the get-go? Are they really that thick? The answer, it turns out, is very clear and very simple: The gang are not arch-rationalists because pretending to be an otherworldly manifestation to hide your unethical tracks is an extremely effective criminal plan. The reason? The realm of the supernatural is very real and something to respect and fear.

Now, look at how the show treats adults in general: They're either criminals (and always criminals motivated by some kind of financial or otherwise personal gain), victims or, in the case of the police, hopelessly incompetent. In any world that subscribes to our model of logic, lawmakers and lawkeepers who are regularly and embarrassingly upstaged by a group of inexperienced young adults who can do their job better than them and effortlessly so would be sacked in a heartbeat, but, in the world of Scooby-Doo, these are the only kinds that exist. The gang are the only proactive characters in the entire show. Authority figures are not to be trusted because they're either evil and corrupt or weak and apathetic. The whole point of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! then, is that the world is full of manipulative, unscrupulous people who will callously play on people's fears to increase their lot in life at the expense of everyone else's. The only way to live justly and freely in it is to jump in with the spirit of the youth, live our life according to our terms damn what anyone else thinks of us, and expose the wrongdoers for what they are. Perhaps most importantly, we have to take up arms ourselves, because no-one will do it for us.

This then at last is when we can finally see the true genius behind juxtaposing the show's visual aesthetic and its narrative structure: The chaotic and surreal nightmare world of Weimar Germany related by the German Expressionists and that Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! so consciously invokes now reflects the traumatic disarray brought upon the United States in the late 1960s by the hegemonic revolution that left the utopian ideals of youth movements in tatters. Those same lost ideals embodied by our main characters, who at the same time express a nostalgic regret for an age long since past even as they seem to subconsciously create an alternate universe around them where the 1960s not only never died, but in fact won by bringing down the same forces that sought to crush them. And this is where it suddenly becomes clear why it's so important for Daphne, the chief clue-finder and question-asker, to be a Mod: Daphne's purpose is to facilitate and engender revolutionary change in the show's world, which makes her basically a microcosm for the entire series.

There's a peculiarly timeless, static and unchanging feel to Scooby-Doo, most notable in future iterations but still clear here to an extent: The gang never really shed their mid-60s fashions (dated even here, at the series' beginning) and continue to frequent Malt Shops well into the 1970s and 1980s, even when they're revealed as the official in-universe calendar dates. In postulating a dream-world alternate reality where the 1960s never needed to end, what Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is saying is that Daphne's starry-eyed Mod utopianism has won the culture war. Our groovy heroes always triumph; the forces of hegemony, bullying and calculating dehumanization always fail. Of course it's a crook in disguise all the time: After all, there will always be someone cleverly hidden just out of plain sight who will use power, fear and intimidation to harm others, and that person will always be stopped by the young and young-at-heart rising up to point out the injustice of it all. Daphne and her friends don't have to be made to change by a shifting cultural zeitgeist: Rather, the world changes around them, the only strong and reliable things within it. That dream-atmosphere surrounding all the great German Expressionist works is plainly on display here to remind us it is all, in fact a dream, but it's a dream worth striving for despite, no, because of its twisted and macabre beauty. The best dreams, we know, are always made of a beguiling mix of light and dark; that's what makes them so memorably haunting.

Like all great children's television, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! doesn't talk down to its audience and manages to effortlessly convey themes that “grown-up”, “adult” shows stumble over constantly. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears respected their viewers of course, but they also respected themselves and the culture their show was going out into: They tried to make the most intelligent and mature show they could, and, because it was a cartoon, they were able to use imagery and visual symbolic logic that would have been impossible on a live-action series. Don't you see what this means, Star Trek friends? This is a show about wayfinding. The gang are travellers making their way through the ruins of modernity, bound together by only their sense of social justice, their desire to help others and their loyalty to and love for each other. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is purely and utterly Vaka Rangi. It perfectly encapsulates all the themes I wanted to highlight on this blog, and that I frequently wish were clearer in Star Trek itself. In fact, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! may well be the most Vaka Rangi work I'm ever going to cover.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sensor Scan: Space Oddity

First of all, let me say I am without question the least qualified person in the world to be talking about David Bowie. I'm as familiar with him and his career as the next person I suppose, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself any kind of expert. There are people who have spent their entire lives following David Bowie and to whom his music is as formative and important as, well, Star Trek is to me I guess.

That said there's simply no getting out of writing about “Space Oddity”. It's an irreducible part of the cultural zeitgeist of mid-to-late 1969 and having it released not a month after the original Star Trek was canceled (for real this time) is about as revealing as it's possible for an amateur scholar of media history to hope for. However, I'm also not going to pretend I have anything remotely resembling original insight to offer about something this iconic: I'll just link you to this piece by Chris O'Leary out of Pushing Ahead of the Dame, which is pretty much the definitive take on “Space Oddity”, and just humbly ask for your patience as I toss out some random assorted thoughts about what this all might have to do with Star Trek and the state of science fiction at the end of the 1960s.

While “Space Oddity” has been rightfully read to be about a lot of different things, one of the most reoccurring motifs I notice in the song is, essentially, Bowie eulogizing the Space Age. Far from the Golden Age archetype of the bold, heroic space explorer, Major Tom is a soft-spoken, reserved fellow and his spaceflight is a gigantic publicity spectacle: It feels like the events of the song are being broadcast on national radio, and Ground Control even straight-up asks him what brand of shirts he's wearing so they can squeeze an advertisement into the live coverage. This would of course tie into the general countercultural belief at the time that the Apollo programme (don't forget Apollo 11 touched down that same summer) was in truth a giant PR stunt for the US government instead of an actual scientific expedition (which, sadly, sort of turned out to be the case).

And, although I'm not keen to draw direct causal links between the Apollo missions and the change in science fiction (or Star Trek, for that matter) there was a cultural shift that this speaks to. Whatever Apollo 11 actually was, one thing it proved pretty decisively is that when it came to outer space, science fact didn't really look like science fiction. Whether or not you think it's a problem for Star Trek that the Apollo missions proved the Moon was essentially a hunk of rock and dust (which I don't think it is: To me the Moon has always remained a beautifully stark, hauntingly evocative alien landscape: With the exception of the mushroom bit, Georges Méliès largely got it right, though Hergé was closer) the fact the space mission itself was troublingly bound up in Cold War politics, capitalist pandering and militaristic bicep flexing surely would be-It's hard to keep your sense of wonder about the universe with all that going on, especially when you and your friends are being relentlessly persecuted by the very people asking you to love NASA and the astronauts.

Really though, while there are parallels to NASA merely by virtue of how central it was to the space craze of the 1950s and early 1960s, “Space Oddity” actually has the closest parallels to the British space programme. Britain maintained an active interest in rocketry and the development of space vehicles as early as 1950, but by the 1960s the programme had seen the majority of its budget slashed and numerous project cancellations. By the 1980s the entire endeavour was all but dead, though the UK continues to launch intelligence and communications satellites to this day. But the idea of “British astronauts” in the vein of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin has always been something of a risible one, as best described in one of Eddie Izzard's most memorable routines: Izzard plays a young child conversing with a friend and is going on about all the heroic things he wants to grow up to be, such as the president and an astronaut, to which Izzard has his other character respond “Look, you're British. Scale it back a bit”. This then is what “Space Oddity” is lampooning.

This is particularly clear in the original version of the song used in Bowie's film Love You 'til Tuesday: Major Tom is a paragon of stereotypical British understatement and on multiple occasions describes his spacecraft as a “tin can”. Meanwhile, Ground Control are a bunch of ridiculously giddy, over-eager zealots. Everything is exaggerated and played totally tongue-in-cheek and there's a sense this really isn't something Britain ought to be concerning itself with: Leave the Final Frontier to the Americans. They're still foolish and naive enough to have dreams of empire. But there's also a sadness and sense of loss to “Space Oddity” too, and this is most evident in the single version of the song. Standing in stark contrast to the jaunty Love You 'til Tuesday cut, the better-known single is very low-key and elegiac, and almost the only instrument is Bowie's solitary acoustic guitar. Now it seems more like something really has been lost and that the death of the Space Age might actually be a cause for some degree of mourning.

Given everything that was wrong with the Space Age, the UFO era and the Golden Age of science fiction, it can be tough to tease out what that might be. After all, isn't the damning critique of any kind of space exploration, let alone the kind that went on in the mid-20th century, that big Western governments were spending so much money to indulge their nationalistic Cold War penis envy while neglecting all the very real and tangible injustices on Earth? Well yes, but who ever said space was the exclusive domain of space agencies, or that science fiction was the exclusive domain of people like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke? The Sky has been one of the most profound and evocative experiences in human nature since as long as there have been humans. The Fremont culture knew this when they settled in Utah's Canyonlands, whose remote isolation and exposure all but forces people to acknowledge the wind and sky. The Polynesians too revered the Sky World as one of the Three Realms, and the ancient Hawaiians believed Mauna Kea (which is, strictly speaking, the tallest mountain on the planet) was the domain of sacred ancestor spirits and the seat of the Sky Itself, one of the primal creative forces of the universe.

In early 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded his own cover of “Space Oddity” on his return from the International Space Station. It was one of the last things he did before returning to Earth and retiring from spaceflight, and he altered the song to reflect this. Now, “Space Oddity” is the story of a man saddened to return to Earth because he knows he'll never again have the opportunity to have this kind of life-changing, life-affirming experience. It's good to be home, but things will never be the same again. Coming in 2013 where the US space agency seems to be going the way of the British one (and not entirely undeservedly, I might add) this seems especially poignant: Commander Hadfield would probably say more people could stand to have their perspectives broadened by travelling to Outer Space. What Commander Hadfield understands is the same thing understood not only by his fellow astronauts, but anyone who can feel the beat of the universe: We're part of the Sky too. It was the marriage of Rangi and Papa that birthed the world, and the world is enveloped in their embrace. The failure of the Space Age is that it tried to force materialistic nationalism and imperialism into the world of the Sky, we all laughed at how ridiculous that idea was. But the failure of the eras to come in its wake was to reject the Sky entirely and turn inwards such that they could not conceive of, let alone understand, a larger reality.

Furthermore we know that Star Trek at least has the potential to tap this tradition: See again the extremely not-Golden Age “The Tholian Web” and “Wink of an Eye”, which hint at uncanny mystical spaces and Otherworlds. Even “The Mark of Gideon” moved Star Trek away from its origins and marked its departure from the era of UFOs, Asimov and, yes, the Space Age. Outer Space is once more as it was: A realm that humbles us and vividly reminds us of humanity's connection to our larger universe. And this is something that astronauts know intimately, as they've witnessed firsthand the Earth and all its wonders and anxieties against the backdrop of the infinite. So, when Major Tom steps outside his capsule in “Space Oddity” and disappears forever into the void, David Bowie remains ambivalent. One the one hand he's attained his own form of Enlightenment and we are not to judge the manner in which the Enlightened achieve their apotheoses, but Major Tom has also abandoned the Earth, and Bowie knows the Earth's relationship to the cosmos is something to be treasured, not discarded. You can't have Rangi without Papa.

If the 1970s were the dawn of the Environmental Age, they were also the dawn of the contemporary Fortean age, and the countercultures, famed as they were for touting expanded and heightened states of consciousness in all forms, aren't going away either. Our worlds are about to get a whole lot weirder, and it's no longer going to be so easy to separate the world of the Stars from life on Earth and the noösphere of positionality and individual experience. But Star Trek, in spite of everything, was ahead of the game on this. And it's about to become more popular than it's ever been.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

“I became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist.”: Turnabout Intruder

Yes, this is Kirk and Spock. Yes, they're holding hands. Fanfic writers, start your pencils.
There's a sense of poetic justice in having Star Trek go out on an episode that names “the Enterprise family” just as it threatens to destroy it because it doesn't respect women.

This was an episode I always consciously avoided: Partially because I have sort of an instinctual reticence towards big emotional finales, and while “Turnabout Intruder” certainly isn't that, it's still very much the end of an era and I can sometimes have a hard time dealing with that: I guess its because I don't like the idea of my stories having to end, or being forced to say goodbye to characters I've grown so accustomed to over the course of several years. I always needed to know there were more adventures, or at least the potential for more adventures.

That said, the biggest reason I avoided "Turnabout Intruder" was because it looked like utter crap. This episode is famously bad, and there are certainly no more ominous signs and portents on the last bow of the Original Series than the credit “Teleplay By Arthur Singer. Story By Gene Roddenberry”. So, I went into this episode absolutely dreading having to watch it. Happily, it turned out to not be nearly as bad as I expected-It's certainly not the worst effort from either of its two co-writers.

Of course, this doesn't mean it's actually any good either.

Answering a distress signal from an archaeological excavation on Camus II, Kirk, Spock and McCoy encounter Kirk's old lover, Doctor Janice Lester, now the head of the expedition, who is suffering from severe radiation poisoning. As Spock and McCoy go to investigate a cry for help further down the dig site, Lester and expresses resentment towards Kirk over the fact their relationship never worked out and her inability to fulfill her dream of becoming a starship captain as Starfleet prohibits women from holding command positions. Suddenly, Lester reveals her illness is a ruse and traps Kirk in an ancient consciousness transference device and transplants her life energy into his body, intending to command the Enterprise in his name...and then to kill him and her old body. This all happens in the teaser, mind you, and the entire remaining forty-eight minutes or so is dedicated towards watching Lester attempt to keep cover on the ship as her increasingly erratic behaviour starts alienating her from the rest of the crew, culminating in her attempting to execute the entire senior staff on mutiny charges.

“Turnabout Intruder” has, clearly, quite a number of rather significant issues. Let's tackle the really obvious one straight off: This episode has serious gender problems. Getting cited as the premier example of reactionary sexism in Star Trek by the Star Trek fans themselves probably counts for something. This episode is typically seen as a slap in the face to feminists, and it's absolutely easy to see why it has that reputation: Lester is a megalomaniacal, murderous woman who wants to usurp a man in a position of power and, once she gets there, she slowly starts to become unhinged and cracks under the pressure, eventually culminating in a massive meltdown (that Scotty even literally describes as “hysterical”), indicating she's incapable of handling the duties and responsibilities such positions of leadership require. Considering this is the work of two of the most blatantly reactionary creative figures in the entire franchise, one is really sort of afforded that reading almost by default. And this seems especially egregious as this is going out in a time where women's struggle for civil rights was really becoming a major concern: In the context of its time, “Turnabout Intruder” seems explicitly and firmly retrograde, which only twists the knife deeper as this is Star Trek's series finale.

That said, there are a surprising number of truly great moments and elements to this episode that seem to at least call into question how straightforwardly indisputable the conclusion to that above argument is. A lot of this has to do with the acting (which I'll touch on in a moment) and I'm sure my reaction is based at least in part on me wanting to close out the Original Series on a somewhat vaguely positive note. It may even be possible that Roddenberry and Singer's general incompetence has finally worked in our favour: Perhaps they actually just bungled trying to write a hateful bit of reactionary sexism. In any case, there are even bits of scripted dialog that hint at an altogether more progressive and interesting story here just beneath the surface waiting to be told. In the teaser, for example, when Lester rants at Kirk about how unfair it is that women aren't allowed to be starship captains, Kirk actually agrees: What he criticises her for is taking out her justified anger and frustration on him. This does get into stereotypically defensive reactions from men to feminism where they frequently try to make it about themselves and take criticism of patriarchy as personal attacks, but I don't think that's quite what's going on in this case: Lester genuinely seems like an abusive partner here, and her later behaviour certainly supports this reading of her character.

But the scene that really got me to take notice was a few moments later, after Lester steals Kirk's body. She taker her time admiring her newfound physical strength and the respect she can command in this form that she wasn't able to do before, then promptly tries to strangle Kirk to death in her old body. Lester declares that she doesn't fear killing now that she has the power to do so, and that Kirk will now understand “the indignity of being a woman” and how it's “...better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman”. Lester doesn't sound like a cruel reactionary Right Wing “FemiNazi” caricature to me: She sounds more like an evil woman who has become evil in part because of her own internalized misogyny. Lester doesn't want a Sisterhood Cabal to rise up, take over the world and crush men the way men have crushed women, nor does she even *really* want equality between men and women. Lester hates the entire concept of “woman”, conceiving of it as a handicap that has held her back from achieving the greatness she feels entitled to. And now, in the body of a man, she finally has the ability to indulge every single one of her power fantasies, because self-absorbed power fantasies that oppress and marginalize others are the exclusive domain of men. It's very telling that Lester gains both the thirst and the ability to kill upon entering a man's body.

(And it's similarly telling that Lester's power fantasies revolve around being the captain of a starship: Five years later is Gene Roddenberry finally beginning to understand how much he hurt Star Trek by infusing the captaincy with so much repugnant masculine bravado and machismo?)

Of course, the true show-stealer is the drag performance that ensues thanks to the body-swapping gimmick of the teaser. William Shatner is absolutely delightful as Janice Lester, spending forty minutes out of the runtime simply vamping around the Enterprise like a supervillainess from some amazingly cheesy sci-fi B-movie: Seriously, he reminds me of Queen Arachnea from Space Ghost: All he needed was to hiss at the camera during the climax screaming “Curses! Foiled again!”. Thing is though, Shatner is so much fun to watch it's easy to miss the gravity and professionalism he actually brings to the part: While he does enthusiastically throw himself at the idea of an evil space queen inhabiting Kirk's body (the part on the climax where a flustered and impatient Lester, who it must be stressed is still being played by William Shatner, tries to seduce Doctor Coleman into killing Kirk must have launched a million slash fics alone), he doesn't prance around in an exaggerated caricature of femininity: Instead, Shatner puts on an extremely nuanced and multifaceted performance that goes at great lengths to emphasize the differences between Lester and Kirk.

Lester is psychotic, cruel, vindictive, manipulative and prone to random outbursts of violence, and seeing someone who looks like Kirk behave this way tips off the rest of the crew pretty much immediately. Critically and laudably, Shatner approaches this the same way Diana Muldaur had previously approached her own two-character brief in “Return to Tomorrow”: Just as Muldaur limited Thalassa's flaws to Thalassa alone, Shatner similarly goes out of his way to make clear that whatever personal failings Janice Lester might have (and it is worrying that so many of them seem to be part of the “emotional” and “irrational” stereotype of women), these are failings unique to her, not generalizations that should be made of all women. It's possible some of this comes from Roddenberry (starting from this point most of Roddenberry's sexism stumbles come from positive discrimination instead of misogyny) but the overwhelming majority is purely due to William Shatner. The best evidence is the last line in the episode, which doubles as the last line in the series:

"Her life could have been as rich as any woman's. If only...if only..."

But the way Shatner delivers it it sounds a lot more like “ rich as anyone's”, which is a far more powerful statement: In the original line, it seems like Kirk is reflecting on how sad it is that institutionalized sexism still exists. Now though, it sounds like Kirk is mourning Lester specifically. Roddenberry may have meant this to be a clumsy problematiziation of Star Trek's utopia inasmuch as women are still not afforded all the rights men are, but Shatner wrestles the meaning away from him and reminds us that no, the purpose of Star Trek is to inspire and give hope to people, and it's up to each one individual to decide what that means for us personally, which is a much nicer note to end the Original Series on.

Really, Janice Lester ought to be remembered as one of Shatner's very best roles: She's a perfect showcase of everything he's so good at. Playing Lester attempting to play Kirk (and getting it wrong, at first slightly and later very much) is a recursive artifice as good as, if not better than, anything in “A Piece of the Action” or “The Enterprise Incident”. It's an incredibly challenging brief Shatner works miracles with, and it's even more remarkable considering he was apparently sick with the flu all throughout filming. But Shatner's not the only one to do a drag turn: Sandra Smith too has a double-character brief, beginning and ending the episode as Janice Lester...but spending the majority of it as Kirk. And it's with her that things get *really* interesting. As Kirk, Smith is every bit as dignified and commands every ounce of respect and admiration Shatner does. But there are subtle differences in what happens to Kirk when compared to what happens to Lester, and Smith's the one who takes this part of the episode from simply good to actually great.

See, Smith plays Kirk as being largely unfazed by being shunted into a woman's body. Whereas Lester is deeply uncomfortable and it is clearly costing her a lot of exertion and willpower to maintain her facade, and she's not all that great at it as is, Kirk doesn't seem bothered in the slightest and is more concerned with proving her identity to Spock and McCoy and regaining control of the Enterprise. In fact, delightfully, Kirk makes an utterly convincing woman: The scene right after waking up in sickbay and discovering what's happened where Kirk has a friendly girl chat with Nurse Chapel is simply a masterstroke: Kirk effortlessly adopts traditionally feminine mannerisms and speech patterns like it's the most natural thing in the world and Chapel is completely fooled. The contrast between this scene and Lester's bungled disguise continuously crumbling around her as more and more of the senior staff start to become suspicious is magnificent: Lester may hate being a woman, but it's a purely conscious hatred of her identity brought on by her egoistic response to oppressive social factors. She's manifestly not a transgendered person, and she has very clear problems adapting to a male role, or rather to what she conceives of a male role to be. Smith, however, has, in essence, turned Kirk into a genderfluid individual-Kirk is equally content taking on a male or a female form, and that's actually a stunningly perfect extrapolation of the character he's always been.

While the scene with Chapel is delightful, what seals it is when Spock goes to question Kirk after Lester tosses her in the brig. Kirk implores Spock to trust her, appealing to the close bond they've always shared. She even flat-out tells Spock that he is “...closer to the captain than anyone in the universe”. First of all, this is the shippiest of shipper-bait dialog, but what's great about this line is that it's something Kirk would have said to Spock anyway. What Smith adds to it is her delivery: She infuses the line with a very deliberate sense of kindness and compassion that's more traditionally associated with women. There's no way a male actor would have delivered this line the way Smith does. You could read this as “straightening out” the homoerotic subtext between Kirk and Spock, but I prefer to read it as emphasizing the nature of the relationship the characters have always had by highlighting parts of it that might otherwise not be picked up on as easily. And, when Smith gets to record that marvelous Captain's Log entry and then gets to defiantly face down Shatner-as-Lester in the court martial scene, there's absolutely no questioning who she really is. Smith is so magnificent as Kirk we actually don't want to see her go back to having to channel Janice Lester.

“Turnabout Intruder”'s biggest problem isn't its messy approach to gender roles, it's actually its really terrible structure. The majority of the episode is taken up by the awful “evil twin” story and the constant scenes where Lester has nasty fights with Spock and McCoy and slowly betrays the trust of the entire crew are absolute torture. I hate, hate this kind of conflict: It's pretty much everything I loathe about scripted drama bound up in one episode. This would have been leagues better had Spock and McCoy figured out Lester's deception somewhere around the first or second act instead of the fourth, as happens in what made it to air. Then, we could have split our time between Spock, McCoy and Scotty colluding with Smith-as-Kirk in secret to take back the Enterprise while putting on elabourate ruses of their own so as not to arouse Shatner-as-Lester's suspicions. We'd get to see everyone try to outmaneuver everyone else through staged recursive artifices and Star Trek's theatrical performativity get kicked into warp drive.

This would all lead up to an epic showdown where the crew perhaps has to chase Lester through the ship as Smith-as-Kirk assumes her rightful place with the senior staff monitoring the crisis from the bridge. I'd have adored a scene where Smith gets to take command of the Enterprise and interacts with the bridge crew as if nothing unusual was going on: That would have been one of the greatest moments in the history of the series. As Spock tells her, “the bridge is where you belong”, and he never said she had to be a man to get there. But, she's kept away from the captain's chair by both diegetic and extradiegetic limiting factors: Hearing Shatner-as-Lester gloat about how Kirk is unable to take command in her current form stings, and so does the fact Smith has so few actual scenes in this episode. While I can't complain too much about the episode focusing on Shatner to the extent it does as Shatner is in fact profoundly entertaining, I can't help but wish it spent an equal amount of time on Smith. The real gender problems with this story aren't in some deliberately reactionary diatribe against feminism, it's that our female captain was never allowed to act like a captain in an episode supposedly about how unfair it was that women aren't allowed to be captains.

It is more than fitting then that Star Trek should end with a Curate's Egg of botched feminism and confused utopianism. Whether he meant to or not, Gene Roddenberry might just have turned in the perfect final episode of the Original Series by having the show go down mired in its inability to live up to its own promises and potential. Like the rest of the series, “Turnabout Intruder” hints at genuine greatness and leaves us with a lot of thought provoking ideas to work with, but it also makes it eminently clear that the show as it stands now is in no way capable of taking these concepts any further. Star Trek is, and always has been, capable of becoming a timeless shared myth in which we can see reflections of the best of ourselves and who we want to be. But Star Trek is also, much like Kirk in this episode, frequently shackled and restrained from being everything it could be. But now Star Trek is, for the moment, free: Ironic that the cancellation of the Original Series is the thing that seals its bid for immortality, from here on out Star Trek can be shaped and interpreted in as many ways as there are people who were inspired by it. And when next we see the Starship Enterprise, we'll finally get a clearer picture of what she meant to those who first journeyed with her.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

“Dust to dust”: All Our Yesterdays

"I knew it was a bad idea to install that survival mod."
“All Our Yesterdays” is the second, and final, submission by Jean Lisette Aroeste, whose previous credit was “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”. It's also the final official fan submission in Star Trek for awhile, the last in the Original Series not to mention the second to last episode in the Original Series overall. Suffice to say, there is a distinctly funereal air about the general proceedings, which isn't at all helped by how stupendously uninspiring this episode is.

It is, however, significantly more coherent than the previous episode made out of an Aroeste script at least. While on a mission to ensure the planetary civilization of Sarpeidon evacuates in time to avoid the imminent supernova that will engulf their solar system in three hours (how exactly Starfleet was planning to evacuate an entire planet in three hours is not explained), the Enterprise finds the planet now entirely free of inhabited life. Beaming down, Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves in a gigantic library curated by an enigmatic man named Mr. Atoz, who runs the installation all by himself with the aid of his many duplicates (how the Enterprise failed to pick up Atoz's life signs is similarly unexplained). As the landing party peruses the discs that archive Sarpeidon's history Kirk hears a scream from outside and goes through a doorway to investigate, only to find himself on a city street in what appears to be England in the 17th Century. Spock and McCoy follow, but find themselves in a frozen arctic landscape from Sarpeidon's ice age. Spock and McCoy are rescued by a woman named Zarabeth, who confirms that the purpose of the library was to tie into a time portal, which allows people to travel back in time to any period in Sarpeidon's history, and that the planet's entire populace must have done so to avoid the supernova.

Reading this episode becomes pretty straightforward once you realise Aroeste was the librarian at UCLA. “All Our Yesterdays” seems quite overtly about the idea that books in a library can transport you to other places and times, especially in Aroeste's original brief, which had a lot more time travel shenanigans. Entitled “A Handful of Dust”, Aroeste's original story featured Spock and McCoy trapped in a desert suffering from heat stroke before encountering a band of mutant humanoids. Kirk ended up in a period reminiscent of Barbary Coast-era San Francisco where he encounters another time traveller, who helps him return to the library and rescue Spock and McCoy. Kirk and his fellow time traveller destroy the portal and escape just in time to watch everything crumble to dust in their hands.

Once again this is an instance of an episode that was considerably monkeyed around with and for which the original submission seems considerably more interesting, so I'm going to be talking primarily about that. But first, a few major things changed between “A Handful of Dust” and “All Our Yesterdays”. The big thing that seems to be different is the effect of time travel on the landing party, and in particular, the fact the original brief didn't seem to specify any. However, in the aired episode, once Spock travels back to Sarpeidon's ice age he seems to devolve to the way Vulcans behaved five thousand years ago: He falls in love with Zarabeth and becomes violently jealous when he thinks McCoy is interested in her as well. This, flatly, doesn't make a damn bit of sense. Neither McCoy or Kirk are similarly affected, and, well, while I'm not one to pull continuity, this didn't happen to Spock in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”,“The City on the Edge of Forever” or “Assignment: Earth”, so I'm not sure why it needed to happen here. Both the prosecutor Kirk associates with and Zarabeth make reference to the time machine “processing” its travellers to fit the period they travel to, which might account for some of Spock's actions were it not for the fact none of the landing party actually ever are “processed”: In fact, that's what allows them to return to the present in the first place. Speaking of Zarabeth, the most notable thing about her is that she's the part of the episode you'd most expect to see from a Star Trek fan, but neither her nor Spock's romance subplot were in Aroeste's original submission at all.

What I'm most interested in talking about here is actually the change in the time period Kirk gets sent to. In “All Our Yesterdays”, he's sent someplace that looks like the UK circa the 17th Century. This is, largely, a missed opportunity. If, judging by Spock, our heroes are meant to somehow adapt to the time period, this seems like it's be a great opportunity to show off William Shatner's talent for mercurial performativity: We'd expect him to turn into a drag show dandy version of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and while he does get a brief swordfighting scene soon after he leaves the portal, we've seen Kirk fence before and this doesn't seem like anything any different from what he's normally capable of. Then, there's a tantalizing moment where Kirk is able to contact Spock and McCoy through the portal, leading the villagers in his presence to immediately conclude he's a witch who communes with spirits.

This was naturally the part of the episode that got my attention, as for awhile it seemed like it was going to conclude that Kirk was some kind of shaman and the time portal was a magickal door between realms (which would neatly tie into my reading of “Wink of an Eye” that posited the world of Star Trek is a Otherworld of Eternal Youth and Summer), but ultimately Kirk just stamps his feet and screams about how “there are no such things as witches”, which sort of throws a damp towel over that particular reading for me. Kirk on the whole actually utterly fails to get into a role here which, sadly, means the episode plays out as almost the opposite of “A Piece of the Action”. I'm not sure whether this was just due to Shatner not caring anymore, or if he simply didn't feel the script was giving him enough material to work with. Given how haphazard the final product is though and that this is the penultimate episode of the series, I am going to lean towards the latter.

But Aroeste of course didn't have Kirk in 17th Century England originally: In “A Handful of Dust”, she had him in the Barbary Coast in the Victorian United States, which is somewhat more intriguing. During the California Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco became an infamous Red Light District that was also a hub for all kinds of other illicit activity, such as gambling and organised crime. Putting Kirk here when at the opposite end of the season he was playing an Old West gang leader and, a few months before that a Chicago Mob Boss, is quite telling. Presumably Kirk would have wound up mingling with all the lowlifes and undesirables, tacitly putting him in opposition to the ways in which Victoriana manifested itself in the United States, which had the potential to give Star Trek one last chance to bare the anti-authoritarian teeth we now know it had. Also, I'm not sure how far Aroeste was planning to go in this direction, but it's certainly in keeping with her library theme to go to logical limit of having the landing party in some sense integrate themselves into the time periods they visit, just as a good book can sometimes be evocative enough to “draw us in” to the world it depicts.

But of course none of this is clear whatsoever in the episode that we can watch. “All Our Yesterdays” is positively crippled by plot holes and logic problems and commits an unforgivable sin by being possibly the most boring and uninteresting episode in the entire series. Furthermore, I found Kirk's violent treatment of Mr. Atoz in the library as he tried to rescue Spock and McCoy really distasteful: Giving Kirk a gratuitous fight scene is one thing, eye-rolling as it may be, but watching him aggressively assault a helpless old man and wrestle him to the ground without once explaining himself or his motives is shockingly awful display of flat-out cruelty that goes beyond simply writing him out of character. And anyway, if the Enterprise was sent to check in on Sarpeidon anyway, wouldn't it have made just a little sense to make sure they'd been contacted beforehand? The Prime Directive isn't explicitly mentioned, but I'm assuming that's why the landing party is so reluctant to tell anyone what they're actually doing, which would have resolved the entire plot about two minutes into the teaser.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this episode is the idea of people using time travel to escape a coming catastrophe: The Sarpeidons retreat into their own past to live out their lives in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the supernova by, in a sense, denying it. Much the same could be said about Star Trek now: The end is very much nigh and, in a real sense, the only thing the show's fans have to hold on to for the moment are the perpetual syndicated reruns to come. Their own history.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

“History prefers legends to men.”: The Savage Curtain

Seriously, you guys. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. You thought I was kidding.

“The Savage Curtain” marks the return of Gene Roddenberry to Star Trek as an actual creative figure for the first time since “The Omega Glory”, and it's apparent pretty much right from the start. The whole teaser is made up of unrefined methodology porn, as the bridge crew mulls over conflicting sensor reports from the planet Excalbia, which the script attempts to convey by having Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Uhura shout random bits of starship operations procedure. Almost the entire first half plays out similarly: I feel like I'm watching “The Cage” all over again. Roddenberry genuinely seems to think it's a good idea to devote lengthy chunks of his script to having his characters robotically quote regulations and jargon. This isn't even technobabble, this is Roddenberry reveling in his show's cod-military structure and pedigree. This isn't writing, this is feeding an academy cadet training manual into a paper shredder placed over a bin full of old Star Trek scripts. We're not even five minutes in and this is already the worst the show has been in months.

And then suddenly Flying Space Abraham Lincoln.

That's not an exaggeration. Out of nowhere, a bad transition fade appears on the viewscreen, spiraling around and around before materializing into full-on Abraham Lincoln, sitting on the Lincoln Memorial to boot like it was Wan Hu's mythical Rocket Chair, except powered by very poor 1960s visual effects. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. And look, I'm not one to ridicule weird and quirky ideas, especially in a speculative fiction show ostensibly designed expressly for the purpose of exploring them. I'm really not. Nor am I one to make fun of outdated VFX technology, especially on a show that's been starved for funding all year. Honest. But come on. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. You look at him and just laugh. There's no way not to, and even though over the course of the past five years on this show we've seen Alien Neanderthal Bigfoot, Actual Lizardmen, sentient lumps of silicon, animate balls of fluff, Poisonous Snow White Monkey Unicorns, a Giant Space Amoeba, Space Spriggans, Half Moon Cookie Aliens and a community of energy beings powered by Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, I'm pretty much going to have to draw my line at Flying Space Abraham Lincoln.

Especially when he's used to tell a painfully damp squib of a story. It turns out that Flying Space Abraham Lincoln has been either resurrected or conjured up out of Kirk's thoughts (it's not clear which), along with Surak, the founder of modern Vulcan philosophy, to side with Kirk and Spock in a deathmatch against history's greatest villains, namely Genghis Khan, Kahless (the founder of Klingon society) and dictators Zora of Tiburon and Colonel Green (and yes, Genghis Khan and Kahless are made of concentrated racism. Did you have to ask?). None of these other characters, it should be noted, seemed to feel the need to make their presence known to the Enterprise by flying through space on rocket chairs. The Excalbians, sentient piles of magma and rubble that are far and away the most sensible things in this episode, have no conception of good and evil and figure the most reasonable and effective way to learn why humans hold to such principles is to stage an all-star brawl the likes of which are known only in the most storied of ten-year-old boys' Trapper Keeper doodles and see who wins. The remainder of the episode after the halfway mark mostly consists of one big extended (and badly choreographed) fight scene interspersed with strangled and unnecessarily detailed exposition about why the Enterprise can't simply beam everyone back.

It's at this point the analysis sort of writes itself. “The Savage Curtain” is once again quintessential Gene Roddenberry, and every single of one his litany of writerly flaws is perfectly clearly on display. This episode, in fact, reads if nothing else like a fiery declaration from Roddenberry to Arthur Singer and Fred Freiberger that nobody is allowed to fail at his show harder than he does. He's naive enough to think “good versus evil” (where, I hasten to add, the participants are quite literally Objectively Good and Objectively Evil-They may as well be wearing white hats and black hats. So Roddenberry has a ten-year-old-boy's conception of morality in addition to a ten-year-old-boy's conception of storytelling structure) is a deep and profound statement and self-absorbed enough to scream about this to us at every possible opportunity and drag the episode's pacing out to such a degree it should legally be reclassified the Self-Transcendence 3100 mile. Then there's the fawning, ahistorical hero worship Kirk (and the script) exhibits towards Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, making “The Savage Curtain” almost as insufferably jingoistic as “The Omega Glory”. I'm not even going to waste time going into the rest of this episode's simpering, pretentious, provincial, facile moralizing: If you want an overview of Gene Roddenberry's motifs read literally anything else I've ever written about him.

This episode does add one significant twist to the traditional Roddenberry formula inasmuch as it occasionally flirts openly with utopian idealism in a way he hasn't really done before now, which is fitting for a third season submission. Regardless of whether or not you think Star Trek inherits the lion's share of its utopianism from Roddenberry, and I think there's at least some room for debate on that matter, the previous scripts that were largely or entirely his work didn't actually focus on this aspect of the show all that much, perhaps excepting “Assignment: Earth”. Roddenberry supposedly extensively rewrote all of the twelve scripts produced under his tenure as sole showrunner back in the first season, but none of those stories were really about the idealism of the world of Star Trek either-They were all largely one-off and incredibly simplistic morality plays. In fact the only real bit of proper utopianism I can recall from the first season at all is Kirk's comment to Stiles in “Balance of Terror” about “leaving any bigotry in your quarters” because “there's no room for it on the bridge”, and in regards to Roddenberry all that hedges on whether that line was his or Paul Schneider's.

That aside, the show was only “idealistic” under Roddenberry because the primary creative figure blatantly used the main characters as mouthpieces for his own ideas and moral code, not because the show on the whole was actually demonstrating what a utopian society might look like (the other major selling point being the diverse cast, which from what I gather was at least in part NBC's idea). The setting was straightforwardly the United States Navy in Space and was only there to move the plot from one place to another: I'm not convinced even Roddenberry thought the Navy was an ideal model for progressive societies. Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana changed that, and, under them, the show started to be more about exploring the concept of idealism in a setting such as Star Trek's, and after that breakthrough it seems Roddenberry started to be more open about explicitly talking about his perception of idealism, as both “Assignment: Earth”, and to a lesser extent this episode, demonstrate.

And the idealism on display in “The Savage Curtain” is quite revealing, especially Kirk's abject reverence towards Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. Roddenberry seems to think that heroic presidents are the model we should aspire to because of their strong and benevolent leadership skills. Incidentally, this is also the only way I can explain why the Enterprise, supposedly a *United Space Ship* from the multicultural United Federation of Planets, has actual procedures in place to welcome visiting presidents from the ancient history of a now-defunct nation-state (which, of course, we need to have explained to us in meticulous detail). And naturally, Flying Space Abraham Lincoln acts nothing like the actual multifaceted historical figure: He's a caricature who speaks entirely in inspirational soundbites.

The big problem with Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, aside from absolutely everything else about him, becomes evident in the scene on the bridge when he meets Uhura and apologises for calling her a “Negress”, as he's just now starting to come to terms with how much more advanced human society is now then in his time. First of all, the real Lincoln's attitude to the Emancipation Proclamation was significantly more complicated than simply him Doing The Right Thing, and deifying him for that is a literally textbook case of the Big Man model of history that effaces the contributions of of the actual former slaves who fought an underground war to wrestle their freedom away from the southern slavemasters for years themselves instead of waiting for politicians to give them concessions, as well as the unpleasant reality the whole thing was by and large a series of calculated political machinations to make Washington look good.

Furthermore, the crew's reaction to Flying Space Abraham Lincoln's comment is abhorrent: They claim that our advanced, evolved society has learned words are meaningless and, in Uhura’s own words “to be delighted with what we are”. No, Mr. Roddenberry, actual progressive societies do not acknowledge that words are meaningless and that we should always “be delighted with what we are”. Actually, the complete opposite of that: They recognise that words have power and have centuries of meaning and connotations associated with them and know that understanding this is the key to helping craft a language and discourse where nobody is made to feel silenced, alienated, dismissed or less than human. And furthermore, they realise that nobody is required “to be delighted with what [they] are” because people have the right to feel however they wish about themselves and their bodies, especially if they belong to a group or groups historically made to feel that their bodies are objects of public scrutiny and critique.

There's Surak too, and while his wandering philosopher archetype is very different from the patrician leadership of Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, that reveals another troubling aspect of Roddenberry's approach. For the first time in quite awhile, the Vulcans are used here to explicitly tout the superiority of pure, untainted logic as a lifestyle, and nobody once calls this into question. Surak's logic is shown to be inherently pacifistic and objectively good, and Spock's flush of emotions at seeing him on Excalbia is portrayed as a failing on his part. Leonard Nimoy and D.C. Fontana have spent over two years showing how Spock is a complex character grappling with notions of identity, faith and belonging and this feels like a giant leap backwards. Furthermore, combined with the fetishistic fixation on protocol in the first half of the episode, it comes across like Roddenberry is once again claiming we should all be some kind of idealized detached and emotionless “rational actors”.

And Surak has other major problems of his own: Roddenberry associates Surak's logic with enlightened pacifism, which results in the characters behavour not actually making a whit of sense. Surak flatly refuses to harm another person, so he goes alone to Team Evil to broker peace and a cease-fire. Naturally, he's tricked, betrayed and murdered, because Evil People are Evil and only ever do Evil Things. This has the handy side-effect of either making Surak look stupidly naive and gullible or returning to the old Roddenberry theme that violence, selfishness and an instinct to murder are all inherent aspects of the human condition and that only two-fisted diplomacy ever gets things done. Neither possibility exactly fills my heart with gladness. Annoyingly, there was the potential to do an actually legitimate criticism of pure pacifism here: Claims that, for example, purely pacifist movements are inherently more successful and more righteous than less pacifist ones do tend to overlook the history of civil rights movements in violently oppressive societies. I remain as ever ambivalent about violent revolution, but the situation is a complex and difficult one and there are a lot of variables and perspectives to take into consideration. However, Gene Roddenberry doesn't seem to be interested in engaging with any of that and just has Surak spout off some vaguely positive sounding pop philosophy and then kills him off to crank up the drama a bit.

One way to perhaps explain all of these confusing and contradictory statements away might be to read “The Savage Curtain” as Roddenberry attempting an early Gene Coon-style problematization of the show's ethics by way of testing Captain Kirk. Indeed, the whole idea of holding a gladiatorial contest to explore human nature is more than a little reminiscent of “Arena”. But that episode was about punishing Kirk and the Gorn captain for their hotheaded aggression, and Kirk ends up proving to the Metrons he's capable of mercy after all. Here, while it's certainly possible to read the Team Good/Team Evil split as being a kind of Angel-and-Devil-on-the-shoulder temptation for Kirk (despite how stupefyingly hackneyed and juvenile that narrative device is), it's not really clear what Kirk is actually being tested on. If Surak's supposed to embody an enlightened form to aspire to he absolutely doesn't come across that way because he acts like a idiot. Maybe then Flying Space Abraham Lincoln is meant to represent Roddenberry's ideals, which would certainly fit with the rest of the episode, but he's also the one who encourages Kirk and Spock to fight dirty if they want to win against Team Evil: Even the Excalbians say the experiment was a failure because Team Good and Team Evil used the same tactics, to which Kirk responds with a truly incoherent bit of moral speechifying. And anyway, Roddenberry even has the Enterprise crew come out and state they're already advanced and virtuous on several occasions, so we're right back where we started.

This episode is just bad. It's Roddenberry screwing up in just about all of his signature ways and even a few new ones. It does see him moving more towards utopianism in his writing, which is going to prove critical once he comes back to Star Trek, but this isn't even a rough draft of where he eventually goes ("The Changeling” is actually the closest we've seen so far which, again, wasn't even his story): It's a half-baked series of ideas, none of which work together and that combine into an episode that's an abjectly broken mess even by third season standards. In addition, it makes me even angrier as this is actually one of the most frequently-cited episodes in all of Star Trek: Astonishingly, almost every character introduced here goes on to play a major role in one or more future incarnations of the franchise. And the only reason why that happens is because Roddenberry wrote it, and Roddenberry Can Do No Wrong, even with a script like this one. “The Savage Curtain” is self-evidently silly, impossible to take seriously by any discernible standard and yet another low for the series.

Thankfully there's not much lower to go from here.